January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Years ago Katherine responded to something I offered by saying that there was ‘a more excellent way,’ which was her gracious way of saying that though I might have been right about something, being right was not enough. I have carried that with me.
We are in the aftermath of a bloody, violent siege in Paris. Lives were lost and a manhunt ensues (I hope they catch her and execute her). Just yesterday it was confirmed that as many as 2,000 people have been massacred in Nigeria in a Boko Haram killing spree. Three days ago a man in Florida threw his own daughter off the Sunshine State Bridge in the Tampa-St. Pete area. She died. My heart is grieved.
What scares me in all this is that amid the revulsion and sorrow I am prone to forget what I believe. I want to respond in rage because this is in my heart, and it is my right to feel it.
It happens subtly. The horrid expressions of the fall have a way of jarring us, and hatred tunnels into our sensibilities to the extent that we get lost in understandable outrage. Politicians don’t help. They bend over backwards to deny the obvious and only stoke the flames of anger to those who are not blind.
I forget what I believe because the pain, suffering and injustices are all so real, and because there is nothing we can do to fix what is broken. We can’t bring back the victims. And lost lives are not shattered lightbulbs we sweep away and replace with new ones. We can’t stop the violence. We can’t change governments and we can’t realign a global moral compass, much less our own!
But we have Jesus – and He is the ‘more excellent way.’ What I mean is that on some level my perspective, though fairly rational, isn’t the issue. The issue is that until heaven and earth are one, the world will always be broken, and because of this, no expression of civility, though eminintly appreciated, will ever be the trajectory upon which humankind moves. Our brokenness always eventually manifests itself in damaged expressions.
We just celebrated God’s coming into the world in the flesh – Jesus. Don’t let this be lost on you. In the Incarnation we have a God who, rather than blame or ignore, entered into the rage, filth, hatred and violence of our world. He bore it in death and left it in the Grave. It was the more excellent way. He is the more excellent way. Even on the Cross He forgave His executioners when it was His right to condemn them, and He demands that we surrender our right to outrage – to the law of love.
Truthfully? I don’t want to do it. But closer inspection reveals that this is exactly what Jesus has done for me.
Friends, this is our good news.
December 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
“He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his stirring, cold cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
The picture in this post is from a mall in Nashville, taken earlier this month. While Katherine browsed the shops, I stood above and listened as the children sang to their proud parents and other gatherers. The music was lovely.
It is impossible to navigate the Christmas story without hearing the music that runs through its narrative. Elizabeth sings God’s glory when she learns that she will bear a son that would prepare the way for the Christ. Mary sang the goodness of God to the angel who revealed that she would give birth to Jesus. The Angels fill the skies with song and worship before the shepherds in fields to announce Jesus’ arrival.
Music is obviously high on God’s list. Early in the scriptures we learn of Jubal, who was the ‘father’ of all who played the harp and flute (Genesis 4). In music God has given us something lovely, something that weaves itself between the logical checkpoints of reason, and the confining precision of time and space.
John Calvin said something to the effect of how even the unbelieving ‘unwittingly express the beauty of God in their music.’
I’ll never forget the comment a friend made when his world fell apart. He was a good pastor who lost his way, and when it all came crashing in, it was too late. Later he would tell a gathering of friends, ‘I have lost my song.’ So sad.
How sweet that when Jesus was born, the silence of God’s voice in Israel of nearly 400 years, was broken, not with a fresh command, or display of strength, but with song.
I am blessed with a wife who is also a musician. Not only does she sing, but she teaches, plays, hums, and sometimes even verbalizes entire thoughts – in Song. Our running exchange when the latter happens goes like this: ‘Did you have to sing that?’ ‘Yes, I did.’
One day I’ll get it.
Advent tells us that one day we will sing the new song of the redeemed. One day our hearts will no longer be burdened by deadlines and pressures, by thoughts of past failures and present worries. One day we will no longer be at a loss for words in expressing ourselves. One day, those who have lost their song, will once again find it.
We won’t have to any longer understand or process or parse or worry about accurately expressing the Faith. In God’s new world, we will be before Jesus, and all the hints and tastes and glimpses of the beauty that have dotted our lives in anticipation of that day, will converge in full measure before the majesty and loveliness and beauty of the Father, who in His Son has made us His.
And we will Sing.
What beautiful, good news of great joy…
peace on earth.
December 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
Translated by John Neal (1818-1866)
Each Christmas season our church musicians perform in the community. For three consecutive evenings on a weekend they do Christmas Jazz in a local eating establishment that opens its doors to us. We are on our third venue in five years because of how the event has grown. It helps to have gifted musicians, for which I am thankful (a short clip is provided below).
While our hope is to spread Christmas cheer, our deeper desire is to love our community well and provide opportunities for people to connect.
Something special happened this year. Our Band decided to ask church members to bring voluntary donations in the form of gift cards to local vendors, for the only homeless shelter in the county. These gifts would enable the residents of the shelter to be able to make purchases that we sometimes take for granted. Our people responded generously.
The music was spectacular, and the venue was perfect as it enabled us to meet, dine, converse and enjoy one another. We could not have asked for more. Katherine and I spent Sunday evening getting to know people we had never before met.
Amazingly and unexpectedly however, patrons from the larger area were so moved by the expressions of music and welcome that they wrote checks and offered cash to the cause. We posted no signs and made no mention outside our church doors, yet people figured it out any way.
I have no way of knowing why, but I do know that for two hours, three nights in a row, in that room, people didn’t have to be alone.
Here’s what I sometimes miss in the celebration each year – I miss how incredibly lonely it must have been for Joseph and Mary. They were far from home, and she was pregnant. They arrived in Bethlehem too late to get a real room, and then were stuck in a stable. There would be no family to celebrate with, and no familiarity with which to introduce their precious newborn.
Then Jesus came, and everything changed.
Angels appeared and sang from the heavens to shepherds who day and night existed in isolation, in dark, lonely fields. Magi journeyed from far away with gifts. All converged in Bethlehem to the stable, and in doing so, they served as a makeshift family to make the moment a little less lonely for the young couple and their infant.
Jesus has come, and He makes us family – I like that (my friend, Debby Sutton wrote beautifully to this on our church Advent blog – a worthy read). And one day He will gather His community – His family – in the new heavens and new earth. No one will be alone. None will be without provision. All will celebrate in reunited joy.
What good news…
December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
N.T. Wright, For All the Saints
Yesterday Katherine and I visited with her father where he is being cared for in a Nashville medical center. We are here because I am performing a wedding ceremony for friends who live in Baltimore (and I fly back late tonight!), and it gave us an opportunity to spend some time with ‘Opa,’ as our children call him. It was a sweet time.
At some point Katherine and her Dad, both gifted with beautiful singing voices, joined together in singing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Lovely would be an understatement.
This Christmas is a first for us. For the first time we will celebrate without either of my parents in this world. Along with Katherine’s Mom, both have died and are no longer here. From time to time sadness overtakes us.
Regardless of how old we become, we can look all the way back to childhood in remembering Christmases past.
Recently some of us recalled growing up in Miami. When I was a young boy we lived in Carol City, which is almost as far north as one can go without leaving the city. Each year the streetlights on NW 27th Avenue were decorated with those colored frilly foil candy canes and Christmas bells. We would drive past them and throughout the neighborhoods as a family, listening to Christmas music on our car AM radio, looking at the lights as we embedded ourselves into the season.
One day our children will remember after we are gone.
The memories bring a kind of muted joy. Though sometimes I am brought to the point of tears in recalling them, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Advent is as much about embracing sadness as it is looking to a future joy. Herod plotted Jesus’ death as Mary and Joseph celebrated His birth. This is our world – joy and sorrow always intermingled. And until Jesus comes and makes everything new it will be this way. Even in blessing Jesus at his presentation at the temple, Simeon said to his mother, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…’ (Luke 2:35).
To insulate ourselves from the world’s sorrows is to live as though Jesus is merely an ornament rather than the Deliverer that He is, and it robs us of the joy of the expectation of His coming. It is in the sadness that we find a deep longing for the sweeter day when Jesus returns.
We celebrate that He has come, and that He is coming. We limp along with our world, longing for the day when it will forever reflect His good reign.
We look to the day we will see our parents again – at the Feast. Until then, we embrace the sorrow that in Jesus, leads to unending joy. Every now and then we are given opportunities to hear the sweet song of life, and maybe even to sing along.
What good news of great joy…
grace and peace.
November 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
“Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralyzing unhappiness and anxiety.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
Earlier this month Katherine and I, along with friends, saw Interstellar, a beautifully filmed thriller involving outer space. It did not disappoint. In it the earth is threatened with a fatal cosmic drought due to an atmosphere that can no longer produce water for crops, and therefore sustenance for life. The star, played by Matthew McConaughey, the world’s top astronaut, is commissioned to fly to three distant planets in order to find a new home for the future of mankind. Don’t worry, there is more to the story.
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…’
We in the human race are obsessed with finding our way out of our brokenness. We launch movements. We produce films. We rally people and protests and attention and positions, but our vivid imaginations, though often spectacular, always fall short, because unless light shines into the darkness, our sight remains dimmed. We long for something we can’t obtain by our own resourcefulness.
Advent. Coming. Longing.
In light of the events surrounding Ferguson, Missouri – the shooting – the protests – the violence – the publicity – it seems to me that there is a deeper issue than the incident at hand, and even beyond the historical issues that may have contributed to shaping the incident.
Don’t hear me saying that these issues don’t matter – they do and I am still learning. What I am saying is that what we celebrate at Advent is the longing for something outside of ourselves – it is a longing for contact – light invading darkness, God taking the initiative to touch humanity, in flesh and blood, and then give us something to collaborate with Him in His work of renewal. We long for His coming.
Darkness. Life without light. Hopelessness. Despair. Isolation.
When Jesus was born the world was as messed up as it is today. Injustice and the inhumane treatment of people prevailed in an empire that made itself strong on the backs of oppressed people.
And when He left, it was just as wrecked, but those who encountered Him knew that they had been loved by God.
What we so easily miss in the exchange of ideas, the social debates, the explanations, the rationalizations, the protests, the violence, the social media, the commentary, the characterizations and the polarization of races, classes and politics… is Love.
Love enables us to make contact. It makes us touch rather than assume – it is human- and it obliterates all self-protective and superficial boundaries.
Friends, I believe that we were given these beautiful imaginations – they are a gift. But they don’t exist in order for us to find the fix or the cure, or the answer. They exist in order to inform our spirits and affirm the gospel story, that God has found us, and that we are loved… in Jesus.
This is our good news of great joy.
September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, REASON [within the Bounds of Religion]
If you haven’t seen the moving video entitled, Made in New York, produced recently by Gatorade honoring Derek Jeter, the retiring New York Yankee shortstop, then sit back and enjoy – it is a worthy watch.
If anything has distinguished Jeter’s career it is that he is a team player. While he is unquestionably an exceptional athlete, it is his commitment to the wellbeing of the team that separates him and others like him.
Hey, I’m no Yankees fan! But those who play for the team – those who care primarily for people other than themselves, they are the ones that transcend the lines of demarcation that normally separate people. I think this is because they tap into what we were created to enjoy with one another, and all creation, before the fall cursed the world with isolation. They embody the selfless expression that community demands in order for it to flourish. In a year filled with painful sports scandals, both on the professional and collegiate athletic levels, it is refreshing to say farewell to a pro that ‘got it.’
This is partly why I believe the Baltimore Orioles’ season has been special (other than winning the AL East Division Title!). They have survived disappointment and injury – as a team. Last Tuesday evening in Camden Yards (picture below) was magic, because team and city converged in joy. It is always about the team, and the people/city the team plays for.
I often don’t get this. In a culture and society that is so individualized, it is easy to get lost in doing my job: preparing my sermon, writing my blog, paying my bills, fixing my house, etc, that I forget the grander, sweeter communal life of love, friendship, fellowship and faith I have been called into.
We weren’t created to live for ourselves. And we are miserable when we do. In spite of the fact that our selfish instincts often prevail against the messy, inconvenience of relationship and sacrifice and self-abandonment, it is when our darkest wishes come true, and everything is in its perfect order just as we wanted it, and we are left to ourselves, that we are at our most miserable.
So God gives us simple expressions of self-abandonment in order that we may catch fresh glimpses of Jesus, who exchanged glory for shame, and honor for love, that we may rediscover that the Father’s great delight is most beautifully enjoyed when shared together… with the team.
What good news…
August 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
A refreshingly honest friend
So some disclosure…
I’m a white guy who grew up in Miami in a mostly white world that was shaped by white tastes, white opinions and white culture. Everyone else had to fit in, and it never occurred to me that this could be wrong.
I can’t remember ever thinking that the streets, our neighborhood or my world, were anything other than perfectly safe. And because I was safe and happy, I just assumed everyone else was.
Injustice wasn’t even on my radar, until a friend in ministry opened my eyes. I’ve been catching up ever since, and am far from an authority.
When my studies floundered, I was still believed in and considered full of potential. Contrast this to Malcolm X, a bright-eyed, super-achieving high school student, whose joy was demolished when a teacher scoffed at the notion that he, an African-American, would aspire to a future that involved being anything other than a janitor.
Earlier this week a coworker and I conversed about issues unearthed by the events in Ferguson. He’s black and I’m white. It was good – we just talked. And we agreed on the need to take the conversation to another level.
Random Thoughts I Scratched throughout the Week…
I have to think that the symbolic, anecdotal, mass-media-driven vitriol takes us nowhere good – It has to be personal, because it is.
Sin is never excusable. Period. Figure out the rest, but if you put a color to your conclusions, you’re missing the point.
There are more civilly minded and community-loving people than not (don’t think color – think people).
There are more good cops than bad ones.
There are more bad politicians than good ones (hey, this is my blog – I can say what I want, but term limits would dramatically help).
Violence is almost never the answer, and victims abound when it occurs.
Not merely with words, but in communal life, will the Church make a difference…
There is no ‘Them’
Protest ≠ Destruction
Love > Fear
Right now I don’t like my world very much.
But God created it to be good. And the gospel informs me that everything that disturbs me is less about ‘it’ and ‘them,’ and more about what is in me.
The fact is that I have no idea what went down in Ferguson. But whatever it was, the images have excavated fears, preconceived notions, and prejudices that either I didn’t know existed – or worse, that I never before wanted to admit.
And I don’t know what to do with this other than to pray… and listen.
All the while holding on to the promise that Jesus, the One who entered into the mess that is our world, and actually loved it, is making everything new, until heaven and earth are one, and the nations gather at the throne, where lions and lambs and infants and cobras dwell safely together in peace.
It is the good news that sustains…
August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments
“Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.
All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.
Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.
I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.
Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).
I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.
Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.
And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.
But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.
Wouldn’t that be sweet.
What good news…
August 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
“… ‘the problem of evil’ is not something we will ‘solve’ in the present world, and… our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of ‘the present evil age.’”
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
What do we do with the world’s brokenness?
The manifestation of evil in the news is particularly horrific at this moment: the fighting in Gaza, the unspeakably sad slaughter in Iraq, Christians and unbelievers alike being executed for sport, with reports of crucifixions and beheadings, even of children. The spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, injustices, whether the exploitation of the poor, the scandal of abortion, or the violence and revulsion of human trafficking and sex trade – all are appalling and disheartening. It is beyond tragic.
Yet amazingly, the gospel assures me that no effort to live out of God’s faithfulness from my little corner of the universe will ever be wasted on a world that desperately hungers for meaning and a vision of something better.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus I am assured that one day everything marred and wrecked by the fall will one day be restored to its intended beauty and loveliness.
This means that…
Indifference to the world’s suffering is not an option for those who love Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” Galatians 1:4). And Ignorance to the world’s brokenness is no excuse for those who live in the gaze of the Father’s daily care.
Sharing in the world’s sorrows means freshly recognizing every evil that causes it merely by looking in the mirror – only to rediscover the grace of God in our own brokenness.
Friends, what you do matters, insignificant as it may seem. Don’t let the enormity of evil and the world’s suffering dampen your hope and paralyze your intentions. Every true expression of the Faith. Each kindness. Every stranger received and enemy loved. Every sacrifice made. Every sin repented of. Every tear shed and prayer uttered – all matter, even if no one else notices, and in the belief that God has His supernatural way of multiplying our efforts, as with fish and loaves (John 6).
Hey, we can’t fix the world, but that’s no excuse for inaction, and in our simple offerings, we bear testimony to the One who can and will renew it, and our efforts signposts of God’s good world.
Even if they amount to no more than one beautiful flower in a dying bunch.
Christ has done no less.
Friends, we bear this good news…
July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
“…I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith… And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
Marlilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is an ice-cream shop at the beach we visit each year that smells heavenly as one walks by. It emits a delicious aroma that undoubtedly draws many in. However, this year on one occasion, I turned the corner the shop is on, only to be hit with the foulest of smells. On the ground, puddling along the building was the nasty water that obviously drains from the shop – the county fair puddle kind of smell that one can barely endure in between nausea-inducing rides.
Reflecting on that odorous moment, I am reminded that we can be like that little shop. We have a beautiful side that we want everyone to notice and embrace. But we also have another side.
Dare I say, a stinky side…
All kinds of experiences, flaws and encounters contribute, and unfortunately our tendency is to not only hide this side, but to live, act and relate as though it doesn’t even exist.
Which is ludicrous.
I have found that the relationships that we hold most dear are those in which we have entrusted some glimpse into our ugliness. In fact, the reality of our flaws and blemishes is the only point of commonality we share.
Other than Jesus.
In other words, our stinky side, and the One who has delivered us from its lasting effects, are what unite us. They are what inform our spirits that we are not alone.
That we don’t have to hide.
That we are safe.
You would think this to be a no-brainer, yet the instinct to self-defend is powerful, and every chink in my armor serve as temptations to protect, pretend and hide, when all along the gospel screams that they are God’s invitations for me to enjoy the dance of intimacy with a world that shares my brokenness.
And hiding only diminishes me.
So back to the Ocean. It is not merely the surface and horizon, but the depths, and perilous realities, the mysteries and dangers, that make it magnificent. The depths shape its lovely colors. The creatures fill it with beautiful diversity. Its mysteries draw us into the wonder of God.
It can’t be what it is, without all that it is.
And neither can we.
But the Father already knows this. And by His grace, in Jesus He has embraced that most ugly, stinky part of us, in forming us into something lovely, flaws and all, until He comes and makes everything new.
Friends, this is our good news…